Living in a Man's World: Women of Saudi Arabia and the U.S. Military

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             The role of women in society, or lack thereof, has become progressively more prominent in numerous communities throughout the world. Traditions and cultural conventions are on the hot seat for questionings as modernity takes a toll on such dictates of conscience. Be that as it may, even the most modern of countries deal with rape, sexual assault and other gender crimes.

The dubiousness of gender equality has been contested, disputed and unresolved for generations. Although the rise of feminism and human rights organizations developed in recent decades, there seems to be a worldly divide amongst the nations.  From the reserved woman of Saudi Arabia to the intrepid woman of the United States military, male prerogative and gender inequality exists and is thriving amongst the two cultures. Although there are cultural, ethical and contextual differences, Saudi women and United States military women are fundamentally homogenous in their political impositions.

            Historically, the United States has challenged gender discrimination at a much more aggressive pace than fellow patronymic societies. Attributable to the push for equality, many Americans claim an equitable resolution has been made. Voting rights, employment and overall women’s liberties have significantly improved over the last decade. However, it is evident that the United States is not an egalitarian society as demonstrated in economic, social and political statistics.        

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"When women and men enjoy the same rights and opportunities across all sectors of society, including economic participation and decision-making, and when the different behaviors, aspirations and needs of women and men are equally valued and favored."

Department of Justice and Equality

          By considering this definition of gender equality and taking a thorough look at American society, it is evident that the United States, nor any country for that matter, has reached a nonpartisan, egalitarian or harmonious state in which the ‘needs of women and men are equally valued and favored.’ 

            The United States military has prohibited women within their combat ranks for decades. However, this ban was lifted and women have slowly been integrated into infantry and ground combat positions. This has been an on-going controversy with several arguments as to why women on the battlefield would be more detrimental than beneficial. One of the most prominent of arguments examines the risk of sexual assault between male and female soldiers. In the past, the military provided sexual assault and rape training that taught women to protect themselves from being raped instead of teaching men not to rape. The content of this training was quickly changed due to obvious political and preferential reasons. Today, the United States military implements a structured course called Sexual Harassment and Assault Response Prevention (SHARP) Program. This program is mandatory annual training for each soldier to complete and briefs are done on a regular basis. 

            ‘Cultures of rape’ or behaviors that allow for sexual assault to occur and/or go unresolved are prevalent within heavily male institutions such as the military. Although this may be due to the correlation of work environment and gender ratio, I find it hard to believe that rape happens because women were the lesser percentage. Several factors attribute to these sex crimes including culture and society. Gender ratio is a poor excuse for sexual misconduct, especially in the twenty-first century professional world. The male to female ratio in the US military can make reporting difficult for females (and males) on account that the deciding factor is usually a high-ranking male. For reported crimes, the decision whether to pursue a sexual assault accusation has been left largely to the discretion of a suspected perpetrator’s commanding officer. In most cases, the perpetrator’s commanding officer gives his soldier a slap on the hand and then dismisses the case with minimal consequences for the assailant while the victim is left humiliated and harassed. Socially speaking, reporting sexual assault is suicide whereat the victim must face the consequences.

             Living in a man’s world is something that the women of Saudi Arabia are very familiar with. From the legal ordinance of male guardianship to the very law that states women must cover their hair at minimum, Saudi Arabia follows a strict, but uncodifed system, rooted in Islamic or Sharia law. The laws and regulations that shape Saudi Arabia are especially stringent upon women, leaving the legal settlements to the discretion of biased interpretation and unjust resolutions. Sexual harassment and violence subsists in Saudi Arabia, like in the United States military, quietly, underreported and ineffably forbidden to talk about. 

            The ambiguity of the uncodified judiciary system in Saudi Arabia has been a constant obstacle for the development of women’s rights. There seems to be plenty of laws that restrict and regulate the rights and liberty of Saudi women. Although there has been progress, the agenda for equality is not being pushed, nor supported. Although Islamic ideals promote the traditional roles of women in the household, the Qur’an states that men and women are created equal to God. The flexibility, or lack thereof, of Sharia law in Saudi Arabia does not advocate for women. In many ways, the uncodified system puts women at a higher risk for discrimination and unjust treatment. Most laws regarding women were created thousands of years ago and interpreted from the Qur’an. Unfortunately, the laws set forth thousands of years ago are not entirely relative to today’s reality. Many punishments are considered inhumane or unjust and have been eliminated or changed over time. However, most laws concerning women have not. For example, the male guardianship system has placed women in a subordinate position, much like personal property to the men in her family, including distant relatives and even her son. In this legal condition, women are subject to sexual violence, marital rape and domestic abuse. The inequality between men and women in the law and in social conventions has created a cultural understanding of discriminatory tolerance.

Sexual harassment and violence subsists in Saudi Arabia, like in the United States military, quietly, underreported and ineffably forbidden to talk about. 

              It is difficult to determine if the gender inequalities in Saudi Arabia are due to the country’s jurisprudence or the primordial culture, or perhaps, the religion that dominates the country and its core beliefs. Patronymic ideology is deep rooted in the Saudi culture, as it is in most nations. Albeit, the general consensus would state the hierarchy lies within the hands of men, a slow transgression has begun across the world, where the worth of a person is not determined by his or her ability to hunt or not be murdered or raped.

           Although introduced by western thought, feminism, in its core, believes that the value of a woman is the same value of a human being. Striving for basic human rights for all people, is not ‘Western’ or ‘modern’, its merely morally and ethically correct. Yet, being a feminist in a heavily patronymic or conservative society invites inequitable treatment. This could be partial reasoning for the continuation of women in traditional or domestic roles, to avoid discrimination and coercion.   

My battle buddy, Adriana and I while we were cadets in the Reserve Officer Training Program.

My battle buddy, Adriana and I while we were cadets in the Reserve Officer Training Program.

          Sexual harassment and assault in the United States Military can be accredited to the patriarchal culture and the atmosphere of the military, sequestering female soldiers into social solitude. In many ways, the U.S. military law system, Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) is not systematized, much like the uncodified judiciary system in Saudi Arabia. The ambiguity of the decision-making process for sexual assault cases has caused the U.S. military to inadequately address crimes committed by their own military members resulting in unresolved or unjust solutions. The problems that women in the U.S. military are faced with are not far from the predicaments of Saudi women. As a gender minority, it can be extremely challenging to find a political or social platform to voice concerns and considerations. Laws concerning rape can be considered adultery cases because it cannot be classified as rape if the perpetrator says it was consensual. As a victim of sexual assault, Saudi women are socially pressured to stay quiet. The implementation of these laws has created a harmful social environment in which women are not only the inferior gender, but second-class at best. 

          Although efforts have been made in surrounding Middle Eastern countries such as Morocco and Egypt, Saudi Arabia still upholds traditional Islamic laws in the literal sense. Although each case is left to the discretion of the judge who may deter from the cardinal law, he must refer to the written statute, first and foremost. According to the law, women who claim they have been raped must provide the court with four honest male witnesses. If they cannot do so, the victim may then also be charged with qadhf, or false witness. While the matter in question exists within the uncodified judiciary system, it seems that this same system is rooted in the original, gender-biased, discriminatory laws that were established through the institutionalization of Islam. 

Playing dress up with my Muslim teacher in Jordan.

Playing dress up with my Muslim teacher in Jordan.

      While living in Morocco for a semester, I discussed sexual harassment and rape with some local women. I inquired about the legal system and their rights as women in the country and in Islam. Many of these women claimed to have been sexually harassed on a daily basis, but never once had reported an incident to the police. When speaking with a young woman who became a close friend, she explained that the police would never believe them (women) even if they tried to report. She said that the police would deny their accusations and contest them by saying, “Well look at what you’re wearing, Girl...” or “If you covered your hair, you wouldn’t attract attention...” or even, “Well look at how much makeup you wear. Of course!” Such fears of repudiation apply to women who are domestically abused, as well. It was explained to me that if a woman is being beaten by her husband or if he rapes her, it is his “right” to do so, but if he beats her for reasons other than disobedience, she technically may report this to the police. Yet, there have been several instances when women have been turned away from the police for lack of evidence, witnesses and even being told that they bruised themselves to get their husband in trouble with the law. 

She said that the police would deny their accusations and contest them by saying, “Well look at what you’re wearing, Girl...” or “If you covered your hair, you wouldn’t attract attention...” or even, “Well look at how much makeup you wear. Of course!”

                  Besides judiciary systems and rape culture, other similarities between Saudi Arabian women and U.S. Military women can be found. Fundamentally, the social structure is very similar. Gender segregation of dining and social quarters exists in both institutions. Female soldiers may not be alone with male soldiers in certain training environments or in enclosed spaces. It is illegal for women to be alone with males who are not relatives in Saudi Arabia. Although these similarities exist, the punishment in Saudi Arabia is much more vitriolic. In 2006, the “Girl of Qatif” was sentenced to 90 lashes after being gang raped by seven men. Yet, she still broke the law and was punished for being alone in a car with a man to whom she was not married. Although contested by numerous Saudi citizens, the rape case was not established in trial and the attackers faced minimal to no punishment. 

      Additionally, ‘marital rape’ and ‘rape kidnappings’ or ‘marital kidnappings’ are still very common in many regions of the Middle East, today.  Marital rape is not a crime, with the exception of Turkey and in many countries, if a rapist marries his victim, he may avoid punishment. By marrying her rapist, a woman can evade shame, punishment and death. These laws make apparent the sociological and psychological disparities that exist between gender and morality in the Middle East. Rape crimes in the Middle East are reflected as an advantage of being a male and a lack of self-ownership as a woman. 

Criminal codes in the Middle East and the Muslim world consistently remind us that the primary social identification of women is as reproductive and sexual beings who are constrained by men, the family, and the state.
— Sherifa Zuhur
My sweet friend, Hind at my commissioning ceremony. She was my teacher in Morocco and then came to the US for a short time.

My sweet friend, Hind at my commissioning ceremony. She was my teacher in Morocco and then came to the US for a short time.

            Masculinity exists in many forms. It exists in the male-dominating society of Saudi Arabia and in the overall culture of the United States military. Many times, this masculinity is linked to aggressiveness, violence and male chauvinism. With many factors influencing the crimes committed against women in the U.S. military, it is evident that the legal system prevents females from receiving requital or refuge. Indistinguishably, Islamic law and its uncodified systematization forbid Saudi women to seek help or reprisal. It is apparent that rape, sexual assault and other gender crimes are taboo in these institutes and remains underreported due to judiciary, social and religious complexes.